What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a sometimes-painful condition caused by wear-and-tear on the discs between the vertebra in your spine. Symptoms can range from none to debilitating. DDD is a common cause of back and neck pain. Most cases respond well to non-surgical treatment.
The vertebral discs provide support and flexibility to your spine and act as shock absorbers. They help you bend, twist, and stand straight. Each disc has a cushiony, gel-like center surrounded by a durable covering. Over time, those discs can dry out, wear down, and shrink, decreasing the spine’s stability and flexibility. They can also bulge or rupture, which may put pressure on the spinal cord or nearby nerves.
As DDD progresses, it can lead to conditions like radiculopathy (pinched nerve), spondylolisthesis (slipping vertebra), and other spinal problems.
Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms
DDD is most common in the neck and lower back, which provide the most motion and are most likely to sustain damage from wear and tear. Common symptoms may include:
- Weakening leg muscles
- Numbness and/or tingling in the arms or legs
- Neck or back pain that might:
- Range from mild to severe
- Radiate down the legs and buttocks
- Extend from the neck to the arms
- Worsen after bending, twisting, or sitting
- Improve after exercise or walking
- Start and stop
- Last a few days to months
Degenerative Disc Disease Causes
The most common cause of DDD is wear and tear. It can start as early as your 30s, and it doesn’t always cause pain or other symptoms. Symptoms usually occur when the disc degeneration involves other structures in the spine, like nerves or joints.
Most people over the age of 40 have some disc degeneration. As we age, our discs tend to dry out, losing their ability to support the spine. They may also tear or crack, allowing the inner disc to bulge out (herniated disc).
DDD can also be caused by overuse or injury from repetitive activities or sports. Our bodies can’t repair those injured discs.
You may also have a greater risk of developing DDD if you:
- Have a history of long-term, repetitive back movements
- Are overweight
- Lead a sedentary lifestyle
Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosis
Your doctor may start by asking about your symptoms and health history to diagnose DDD. Then, you’ll have a physical exam to check your nerve function, pain, muscle strength.
You may have one or more of the following tests so your doctor can visualize the condition and alignment of your discs:
X-Ray – X-rays are pictures of your bones and joints that may show your doctor fractures, dislocations, bone spurs, and other possible causes of your pain.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) – MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create a picture of your spine, including discs and nerves. It can help your doctor identify damaged discs or pinched nerves.
CT (computed tomography) – CT is a test that takes cross-sectional pictures of the bones of your spine to produce 3D images.
Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment
Typically, treatment will start with noninvasive options and progress towards surgery if other options fail. Treatments may include the following:
Cold packs can help decrease the pain of a disc damaged from DDD, while heat can reduce painful inflammation.
Working with a Physical Therapist can relieve your pain by improving your balance, flexibility, and range of motion while strengthening your back.
Medications may relieve pain or decrease inflammation and may include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Nerve medications
- Muscle relaxers
- Steroids for inflammation (short-term)
- Prescription pain relievers
Epidural Steroid Injections
Steroid injections soothe inflammation of pinched nerves or painful joints. Medication is injected near the affected nerves, joints, or disc. You may notice results within a few days.
If more conservative treatments don’t relieve your symptoms, you may be a candidate for surgery to relieve pressure on irritated nerves:
Discectomy – Removing part of a disc can relieve pressure on your nerves.
Foraminotomy – This procedure widens the opening where the nerve root exits the spinal canal.
Laminectomy – A laminectomy makes the spinal canal larger by removing the back part of a vertebra, called the lamina. This relieves pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.
Osteophyte removal – This procedure removes bone spurs that may be irritating nerves or the spinal cord.
Spinal Fusion – A spinal fusion permanently connects two or more vertebrae to stabilize that section of your spine.
Most people with DDD can successfully treat their symptoms with conservative treatment. If you’re experiencing back or neck pain, talk to your doctor about treatment before the pain grows worse.
If you think you may have degenerative joint disease, schedule a consultation appointment today!